Mother of Fallen Yarnell Hill Firefighter Files Claim Seeking $36 Million

PHOTO: Grant McKee and 18 of his fellow crewmembers died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Glenn Ilah near Yarnell, Ariz. on June 30, 2013.
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The mother of firefighter who died while battling the Yarnell Hill blaze on June 30, intends to sue state and local authorities for negligence and attempting to "whitewash" an investigation into the deaths of the crew.

Marcia McKee filed a notice of claim on Friday against the state of Arizona, City of Prescott and Yavapai County seeking $12 million from each for negligent and careless actions that led to the death of her son, Grant, who was 21 when he perished alongside 18 members of his Granite Mountain Hotshots crew.

In the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, McKee says she suffered tremendously when her "best friend" and only son was taken away.

"It's not supposed to be like this," she wrote. "No more Mother's Day cards or phone calls. Nor will I ever get to see him walk down the aisle or be called grandma. My life was also taken that day because he was my life."

McKee, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif., says in the notice that her son's death was "preventable," but that authorities violated all 10 of the mandatory Standard Firefighting Orders, designed to avoid firefighter injuries and deaths. She accused 13 individuals and entities named in the claim of failing to provide adequate equipment or maintain consistent or proper communications with the crew.

The claim also says the "Yarnell Hill Fire Report," which summarized conclusions of a three-month investigation into the firefighters' deaths, was "a blame-avoiding, muddled, and untrustworthy cover-up."

"As far as constructing a logical, accurate sequence of events, the Yarnell Hill Fire Report is almost useless," the claim says.

The roughly 120-page report commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division detailed the exact conditions that fueled the fire, which included erratic and gusting winds, triple-digit temperatures and extreme drought.

It also detailed that some radios were not equipped with appropraite tone guards, "radio traffic was heavy" and there was a 30-minute gap in communications shortly before a raging inferno overwhelmed the men.

The blaze was the deadliest for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, destroyed more than 100 homes and spread across 13 square miles before it was fully contained 10 days later.

Only one of the 20-member Granite Mountains crew survived the fire that was sparked by lightning from thunder storms brewing over the area on June 28. He had become separated from his team members earlier that day.

It remains unknown exactly why the other firefighters left the rim and descended into the dry brush-filled canyon, quickly becoming trapped by a blistering inferno that split boulders and torched surrounding trees, the report said.

The men were travelling through unburned territory toward a safety zone when shifting winds provoked a 90-degree direction change in the movement of the fire and the flames, which quickly spread across chaparral shrubs and dry grass, cutting off their escape route.

The fire crew, all aged from 21 to 43 years old, only had two minutes to improvise a shelter site using chain saws and burning out.

They deployed personal tent-like emergency shields in a last-resort bid to survive, but the fire, which burned rapidly, moving 10 to 12 miles an hour and at temperatures up to 200 degrees Farenheit, swept through the area and made direct flame contact with the site.

The firefighters' bodies were recovered shortly after the fire subsided.

McKee is the first person among any of the crew's surviving family members to make a claim of any type, although others have previously voiced their anger and dissatisfaction with the fire investigation, which was conducted by a task force composed of 12 local and national inter-agency fire experts, led by Florida Forester Jim Karels.

The day the report was released, Sept. 28, the father of fallen fireman Travis Turbyfill, 27, said the crew were not given adequate protection gear and that the report failed to include future recommendations for fire shelter technology development.

"There isn't a football player that goes on the field without pads and a helmet," David Turbyfill said. "You don't send a structural fire department guy into a fire without the proper protection gear."

McKee's lawyer, Craig Knapp of Knapp & Roberts, said he is aware of other families wanting more information but had not been officially retained by any. He also said none of the 13 entities served had responded yet to the notice.

ABC News and ABC15 have not yet been able to reach any of the those individuals or entities.

Knapp said the loss of a child is "everlasting -- it never goes away," and that valuing the life of a 21-year-old, as well as measuring pain and suffering in monetary figures was "not an easy job."

"She wants answers of what happened to her son," said Knapp of his client. "Most importantly she wants the truth to come out so that changes can be made for other hot shots crew members."

McKee said she is willing to settle outside court for $12 million, if the matter can be resolved in 60 days.

"There is no cure for grief," McKee told ABC15. She said the money doesn't mean anything to her, but hopes the claim will produce answers that will lead to policy changes to help prevent something similar from happening to other families.

McKee keeps four voicemails she has from Grant that she listens to every day.

In the last phone conversation she had with her son, McKee said she told him to be careful, to which Grant's response was: "What are the odds of me dying in a fire? Think about it Mom."

"I told him I loved him and still be careful," she said. "He said to me 'I love you too Mom.' That was the last time I'll ever hear my baby call me Mom."

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